These machines are claimed to soften water without taking out hard minerals or adding salt as the more commonly used ion exchange water softeners do. Magnet systems come in a variety of different devices, but the idea behind all is that they stop scale from forming and provide benefits without the health risks associated with water softeners. Some manufacturers claim they can even eliminate existing scale over time. Magnets are usually placed on opposite sides of a water pipe, inside or out. Other systems are coils of wire with an electrical current flowing through them wrapped around a pipe and are usually known as electrostatic or electronic water conditioners. They are supposed to provide the same outcome as magnetic water softeners: altering calcium and magnesium ions so they can't form scale.
The expert consensus
We at Purity Planet don't pretend to know the accuracy of the science behind any of this, and the biggest problem seems to be that even so-called experts argue over the validity of magnetic water softeners. Most people are of the opinion that they don't work, at least not as well as ion exchange, and many say they are likely scams though they admit some studies have indicated otherwise. One of the biggest issues is manufacturers offering false promises and using incorrect science to try to sell their products. Even believers in magnetic treatment, while claiming a conspiracy against magnets, have commented on practitioners giving magnetic water softeners a bad name.
Any reported outcomes vary widely and often contradict each other. Consumer Reports published a review in the late '90s saying the method was ineffective, the same conclusion many scientific studies have come to. Of course, there have been some positive results in certain conditions, but no one really understands what factors might affect performance, leading some to believe that variables, possibly the presence of silica, could be responsible.
Is a magnetic water softener worth the cost?
Typical prices for residential magnetic water softeners can range from about $100 to over $900 - a big price to pay for something that might not work as advertised. You're taking your chances with magnetic water softeners; there's no guarantee they'll work, and you might end up having to purchase another system anyway. But if you still want to try it out, make sure you deal with someone who doesn't make exorbitant claims and who gives you both sides of the story.
Catalytic water softeners
Some companies have come out swinging against catalytic and magnet systems, saying any claims are gimmicks used for making a sale and the units aren't worth purchasing. There are also websites that don't necessarily debunk the possibility of magnetic water softeners but say no claimed results have been scientifically validated and should be met with a large serving of skepticism.